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Civil War Pollution in the Epodes and Odes of Horace

Jovan Cvjetičanin

University of Virginia

The continuity and development in Horace’s attitudes towards the civil war from the Epodes to the Odes have received some scholarly attention (Grimal 1975, Wallace-Hadrill 1982, Nasta 2001). One aspect of this development has remained underappreciated, however, namely the poet’s expressions of anxiety about the pollution incurred from the civil war and the possibility of its expiation. The cause of the civil war shifts from ancestral guilt originating with Romulus’ murder of Remus to the overall degradation of morals. I argue that the anxiety and pessimism found in the Epodes, written in the volatile Triumviral period, gradually begins to incorporate a more optimistic vision during the still unstable early Principate (Odes 1-3); by the time of the more stable political situation in Odes 4, anxiety about civil war pollution is supplanted by a vision of complete expiation by Augustus. My analysis traces Horace’s vocabulary of purity and pollution in light of Lennon’s recent work (2014) on pollution in ancient Rome and Bowditch’s study (2001) of ritual and tragic discourse in Horace.

In Epodes 7 and 16 we see a focus on the scelus fraternae necis, which raises the question of Remus’ murder and the responsibility of ancestral guilt for the civil war. This causation is framed by the vocabulary of disease and criminal activity which is related to blood pollution (7.20: sacer nepotibus cruor). Furthermore, Horace explains the cause of the civil war through a combination of Roman religious experience and motifs from Greek tragedy, tracing the origin of the conflict down to Romulus. Starting with Od. 1.2, we can see that the answer to who can expiate the severe transgressions of the civil war (29-30: cui dabit partis scelus expiandi Iuppiter?) is ultimately a quasi-divine Augustus. The task of the Princeps is twofold: to direct Roman violence away from home towards an external enemy, and to remove the stain of the civil war through moral reforms. The latter task is important, as it shows Horace moving away from his initial interpretation of the civil wars as stemming from fratricide towards the idea that overall moral decay is to blame. The fact that Augustus identified himself with Romulus must have conflicted with the fratricidal interpretation found in the Epodes; in the Odes, therefore, we find a new understanding of the causes of the civil war. Finally, in Odes 4 there emerges a new, purified vision of the empire. Every household is now free from pollution (4.5.21: nullis polluitur casta domus stupris), which may serve as a response to the previously addressed anxiety about the future degradation of the Roman people. Od. 4.15 circles back to the question of civil war pollution raised in the Epodes; with Augustus as leader, Romans are safe from the madness of civil war (17-18: non furor civilis aut vis exiget otium). The vocabulary of purity and pollution is therefore used consistently in Horace’s poetry, following a trajectory from pessimism to optimism about the stability of Augustus’ rule and the validity of his settlement.

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Triumviral Literature

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